Historic Immigration Overhaul Clears Senate

Ross D. Franklin/AP file photo

The Senate approved a measure Thursday to make the most dramatic changes to immigration law in 25 years. It would give a path to citizenship to some 11 million undocumented immigrants, dramatically boost border security, and create a new work-visa program for future immigrants. The measure passed with a bipartisan vote of 68-32, though a narrow majority of Senate Republicans opposed the legislation.

But the legislation faces an uncertain outcome in the House, where Republicans view the bill with outright hostility. 

"I consider this an astounding success. An astounding success. You could ratify a treaty or override a veto. This is as good as it gets in the Senate," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of the members of the "Gang of Eight" Republicans and Democrats that crafted the legislation.

"I thought we could probably get a majority at the beginning. I certainly didn't think we could get 68 votes. That's pretty impressive," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., another leading Republican supporter.

The Senate's final vote, with 14 Republicans joining all Democrats, was the result of dozens of lawmakers accepting things that they would normally reject for the sake of passing a comprehensive bill. Democrats still fret that the bill's massive influx of troops and drones on the border, requested by Republicans, will create militarized zones and hurt local communities. Republicans fear that the path to citizenship, requested by Democrats, will encourage more illegal immigration in the future. 

In that sense, the bill's passage also marks a rare example where lawmakers compromised on a tough issue at a time when the political differences of both parties are so stark.

The moment isn't lost on the GOP-controlled House, where Republicans are deeply divided on whether to give undocumented immigrants any type of legal status. At least half of them are solid 'no' votes on anything approaching the Senate proposal. Many think illegal immigrants should not become citizens under the procedures set forth in the Senate bill. The House members are working their way through a series of smaller measures that they hope can compete with the Senate bill.

House Republicans are unmoved by the sense of urgency projected by immigration reform advocates. "The bottom line is it's been since 1986 that there was legislation related to immigration reform. I don't know what a couple more months is going to hurt," said Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who chairs the House Judiciary Committee's Immigration Subcommittee.

Gowdy is friends with Senate "gang" member Lindsey Graham, who hails from his home state, but he says he disagrees with Graham's approach to immigration. Graham acknowledges that South Carolina has its share of "self-deportation, put 'em in jail folks.... I've lost those people. They're there, but I lost them a long time ago," he said.

Graham's advice to the House? "Take up immigration on your own timetable and the way you would like to see it happen. Just address the issue. If you don't like our bill, do one of your own."

That's exactly what the House is doing. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, on Thursday reiterated publicly the private vow he made to House Republicans a day earlier, that no immigration bill will pass without a majority of them signing off. "For any legislation—including a conference report—to pass the House, it's going to have to be a bill that has the support of a majority of our members," he said.

Immigration-reform advocates are preparing to blame the House Republicans for blocking the Senate's legislation if they fail to pass an immigration bill that would allow a House-Senate conference committee. If the House doesn't pass legislation, activists will likely turn their attention to the administration next year, asking for more deferrals of deportation along the lines of last year's deferred action program for "Dreamers," unauthorized youth who were brought to the country as kids.

"The irony is that if House Republicans block immigration reform, in hopes of thwarting Obama and getting a bill more to their liking in the future, they will give Obama a chance to go down in history as the great emancipator of Latino immigrants," said America's Voice Executive Director Frank Sharry. "A future Democratic Congress and president will be able to pass reform with a path to citizenship without giving nearly as much as they're prepared to give this year."

But senators see this year's immigration debate as a welcome return to some semblance of ordinary legislating. It comes before lawmakers are preparing for an ugly debt-ceiling fight in the fall.

"It has been a step in the right direction with eight senators putting the bill forward. The committee markup was robust," said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La. She wasn't involved in writing the bill but became a key figure on the Senate floor when she briefly halted debate and angrily confronted Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., about why she couldn't get her amendments into the vote queue.

Landrieu said that final passage of the immigration bill shows that major legislation can indeed sprout through the muck of partisan squabbles. "I'm trying to be one of those green shoots," she said a few hours before the Senate's vote. "It has not been a model of bipartisanship on the floor," she added, noting that the debate was overly focused on amendments from opponents. "In the old days, four years ago, [noncontroversial amendments] would have been possible."

Even so, basic cordiality among senators was on display throughout the process. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who voted against the bill, congratulated Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., on the Senate floor for the fair and transparent way he shepherded the bill through his committee.

The "Gang of Eight" made sure from the beginning that no single member emerged as the de facto "leader" that could scare away members of the opposite party. That's no small feat when several gang members—Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and McCain—are prominent media personalities.

"Boy, will I be glad when I don't have to talk to this guy," Graham joked as he was flagged down in a Capitol hallway by Schumer the morning of the final vote.

Rebecca Kaplan contributed to this report. 

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